Writing about Stephen Duffy recently reminded me of the time he teamed up with Blur’s Alex James and Elastica’s Justin Welch (plus Alex’s friend Charlie Bloor) to form a “supergroup” called Me Me Me. They released one single, Hanging Around, which hit Number 19 in 1996. Alex’s contributions to Blur up until this point had either been ignored or treated badly, while Fat Les, his band with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst, was still two years away from terrorising the charts with the fearsome Vindaloo. This interview is from Select magazine, circa June 1996, with words by David Cavanagh and a photo by Donald Milne.
“I think we’re some of London’s finest under-achievers,” says Alex James, kicking well back with a nonchalant Long Island iced tea. “So it probably makes sense to call ourselves Me Me Me.”
He’s having a pleasant Sunday’s drinking prior to another intensive week in the studio with Blur, whose next album has just got underway. In time, they will be moving to Iceland to record the bulk of it. Me Me Me will be a fond memory by then – a one-off project that was fun while it lasted. A single, Hanging Around (released on 29 July), will provide the proof that they existed.
And so to current business. Alex from Blur has recorded this here single (written by him) with the assistance of Justin from Elastica, Britacousticpop cult personage Stephen Duffy and an old-school chum of Alex’s from Bournemouth. The question is: how seriously do we take this? Does it imply the thin end of the your-bass-is-in-the-lift wedge for Blur’s signor bottom end? No, it does not. Is it, then, a case of “sayonara sticksman” for Justin Welch, popular sole frequenter of the gents’ lavatories in Elastica? No, it is not. Does it, in that case, signify a sly ruse on the part of Alex and Justin to get Stephen Duffy into the singles charts even if it kills them? Once again, no.
As will instantly be understood when you hear it, Hanging Around is a good old laugh being shared by four blokes who like to knock back the odd drink. Except that, being above-average musicians, they’ve only gone and come up with a top-notch, very, very immediate summer record. Full of brass and merriment, it’s one of those Katrina & The Waves-type affairs that annually capture a consciousness. It may well have been written in 15 minutes – as Alex claims – but enough money has been spent on it to make it, quote, this year’s answer to Supergrass’ Alright.
Me Me Me don’t really do much press. They don’t really do much of anything, except drink together and get on with their own lives. But they arrange to convene on a Sunday evening on National Cinema Day. On National Cinema Day, you can see any film for £1. To be more specific, you can stand in a long queue and wait to see any film for £1. It’s all quite irrelevant to Alex, a heavy smoker, who has not been to a cinema in some years owing to their anti-cigarette policy. He meets Select in a Covent Garden cocktail bar of his own choosing. There is nowhere to sit down.
“Bit full. Let’s go upstairs.”
He leads the way through double doors into an alley and up two flights of stairs to a small front room, most of which is taken up by books, a piano and all the other members of Me Me Me (who have drinks). This, you realise with a start, is actually Alex’s flat. One had heard he lived in Soho. One didn’t realise he lived quite so close to alcohol. He moved here in the early ’90s and all his favourite drinking establishments are within walking distance. Matrix Studios, where Blur have demoed much of their material over the years, is two streets away. By day and by night, Alex square-miles the Soho heartland, bouncing from one Cluedo pub trivia machine to another.
One day, shortly after he moved here, he was shopping in Tesco. He was approached by Stephen Duffy, the ex-brains of The Lilac Time, who announced himself a fan of Blur’s music.
“And this was before Modern Life Is Rubbish,” Duffy notes. “This is Leisure. Guy Pratt [sometime Duffy bassist] was in Pink Floyd when I got that record, and when I played it to him he said, ‘Why buy this? Why not just listen to Syd Barrett?'”
A friendship resulted, and Alex would sit down at the piano and play Stephen the songs he had written, songs which Damon Albarn flatly – and some might even say justifiably – refused to consider for Blur albums.
“I love Alex’s songs,” says Stephen, a very young-looking 36-year-old. “I rate him incredibly highly. He writes very interesting, concise songs that it takes a while to get your head round.”
Even the ardent Blur fan will only ever have heard two tunes by Alex James: the rather enjoyable Far Out (on Parklife) and Alex’s Song (B-side of End Of A Century), which Blur sabotaged by speeding up his vocal. Alone at his piano, Alex has composed dozens of songs, and Stephen Duffy’s vote of confidence meant much to him. Duffy is the only performer ever to cover an Alex number (Tempus Fugit), which can be found on the B-side of Sugar High, a single taken from his last album, Duffy.
When Alex’s artist pal Damien Hirst was commissioned last year to make a film (Hanging Around) for the Spellbound exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, he asked Alex to write him a song. Alex gathered a little band together. Duffy was in. So too was Justin Welch of Elastica. “Justin’s the best drummer I know,” Alex will say forthrightly, but there are added attractions to the Elastica man’s presence. Chipper and good-humoured, he radiates an ‘I will find a party or, failing that, start one’ effervescence that is, for many, a deeply attractive trait. He gives our interview his fullest eight minutes’ attention before scuttling to the kitchen, whence raucous laughter can be heard intermittently. He and Alex first met in 1990, when Justin’s old band Spitfire supported Blur on the Leisure tour. Tomorrow, Justin’s wanted back at the studio where Elastica are, at last, commencing their second album.
To complete the line-up, Alex got in Charlie Bloor (guitar, keyboards), an old schoolboy acquaintance from Bournemouth days. If not the silent partner, Charlie’s certainly the darkest of the four horses. His name might be know to those who remember Flood, a compelling four-piece which made two EPs in 1990-91. Charlie and Alex wrote their first song at school in the early ’80s – about plankton.
“It was quite a good song,” Alex remembers. “Burning both ends/I’ve got too many friends.”
And so the personnel of Me Me Me was assembled. With Stephen doing most of the singing , and Alex doing the rest, they bashed out Hanging Around for Hirst’s film.
“Nobody thought it would ever come out,” Duffy explains.
“It was just being really silly and mucking around. Whenever we get together, we’re drunk by three o’clock in the afternoon,” adds Alex
But the song acquired a good reputation among those who’d seen Hirst’s film and, crucially, with summer on the way, it sounded like a hit. The boys were asked to come up with B-sides and a video. Stephen Street was brought in to produce. Several labels argued about who owned the rights to the products (Duffy’s label, Indolent, won).
“We’re a supergroup,” says Alex with considerable irony. “If anyone else likes it, it’s a cash bonus.”
It’s not quite that simple. With Hanging Around about to become a matter for public record, Alex is under friendly instructions to stop mucking about and get back to his day job. Blur, who have intentionally been keeping a low profile this year, don’t want any of their eccentric bassist’s publicity backfiring on them.
What could do Blur the world of good, of course, is for Hanging Around to become a reasonably big hit – but not too big. The ideal chart position might be about number 24. The implication would be: “Look! We’re still hugely popular – even our bassist can write a Top 30 song on his own.”
Hidden away on the B-side of Hanging Around are two songs that reveal a little about Alex James’ current lifestyle. This is a lifestyle that has endeared him to so many (amiably sozzled rake sallies forth into Soho champagne dispensaries) and brought rebuke from others (pissed fool needs to take better care of himself).
He is a regular at the Groucho – the infamous club for media people – and he drinks with a circle of buddies that revolves around Hirst and actor/comedian Keith Allen. The three of them worked together on the video for Country House, a project nowadays best forgotten, and they have been difficult to separate ever since. Alex, who has a keen and unorthodox mind, now also has a bad reputation as a self-parodic lush. As yet, this subject is still a joking matter – even when it concerns his drink-related paunch.
“It’s still the best place for alcoholics,” he says of the Groucho. “And I do like being around them.” He drifts off into wacky self-analysis: “I’m an aspiring idiot… Soho genius, who… misses aeroplanes and loses at snooker.”
What’s the attraction of Hirst and Allen, then?
“They’re very good together. It’s like being a first-former and hanging out with third-formers, because they’re very, very naughty and they encourage each other.”
Of the B-sides, Tabitha’s Island is about a supermodel Alex knows – one of several. Hollywood Wives, probably the stand-out song of the three, is all about fame, newspaper reportage and perceived glamour. Sung with a shaky but easy-going twang, his choruses chime out sarcastically [“Hold the front page/This is an outrage”] while the verses, given to Duffy, are softer and more reflective. The first line goes: “I had a dream and it came true…” Sure enough, Alex now has everything he could ever want, including the telescope of which he daydreamed in Blur’s very first Select feature, six long years ago.
“What would you do if you won the Lottery and it was 40 million?” Charlie asks him. The two men are clearly on very different salaries. Alex is slightly thrown by his one-time schoolfriend’s slight faux pas.
“Well, I’ve got loads of money…” he says.
Had he seen the Blur cover story in Q, in which Graham claimed that Alex was the biggest tight-arse in the band?
“That wasn’t very nice,” says Alex. “Yeah, it hurt. Bless him. He’s my best mate.”
“When people recognise somebody but they don’t know what that somebody does,” interrupts Duffy tactfully, “that’s when it’s a bit frightening. It’s OK when they know the work.”
“I am a glamour junkie”, Alex acknowledges. “It’s weird: I don’t know if I really want to be any more famous than I am. You know, Blur aren’t grabbing headlines at the moment. We win the Ivor Novello award and the headlines say, ‘Oasis shun Novello’. And somewhere down the middle of the page, it says, ‘…who shared the award with Blur’.”
Duffy’s own face was at its most famous in 1985 when, as Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, he had a Top Five hit with Kiss Me (for years, Alex thought it was by The Psychedelic Furs). A few years before, he had sung in Duran Duran at an embryonic stage in their career. Had he thought about what might have happened if he’d stayed with them?
“Of course, I think it’s bad walking away from commitments – it stops you from committing to any relationship in the future. I think one should always stay in one’s first group and fight it out, as sort of therapy. But we [Duran Duran] just couldn’t get it together to even make a record.”
“That was before the coke?” asks Alex.
“Before the coke, yeah,” replies Stephen. “We hadn’t even had a joint by that time. Two of the members were virgins, I think.”
Would he have remained the leader?
“Well, I was the singer.”
“Would you be fat?” asks Alex.
Duffy is currently writing songs for his next album – amazingly, his tenth – and doesn’t consider himself unfortunate not to be more widely-known. His records sell as well as Nick Drake’s did when Nick Drake was alive, and Duffy appears content with that.
“At least I’m in a position to write and make records,” he says. “I don’t have to work for Westminster Council or something.”
He means no offence, but Charlie, who works for Westminster Council, says nothing.
So just where is Hanging Around likely to chart? Justin estimates a placing of number eight. Alex reckons just outside the Top 40. Stephen, wryly, thinks just outside the Top 100. “It’s a number two record,” promises Charlie. And do you know what? He could well be the closest. There is a sort of insanely sunshiney feel to Hanging Around and that makes a Number One hit not a wholly laughable idea.
“I’ll look really stupid, though, as will the rest of Blur, if it stiffs,” Alex says.
Did he offer Hanging Around to them?
“Well, I said to Damon, ‘I’ve got a silly song we could do.’ And he said, ‘I’ve got some good songs. Ha ha ha ha…'”